Returning to school: Less scary than raising 4 kids solo

Ishikawa Ken FLICKR

The first day of school is a day of joy for parents, and dread for children. But what happens when the parent is the student?

Aside from cutting my bangs, going back to school was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. There are always so many reasons not to go back to school – the kids, the cost, the work. But for me, the reasons to go back – self-fulfilment, professional advancement, all that adult stuff – outweigh the negatives.

Still, fear has a way of blinding us. It tells us that we just can’t do it, that it’s just too much work. But after you’ve already done the scariest thing, becoming a single mother to four children, what’s a little more fear thrown in? So, like any Type A mature student, I loaded my bag with pens, highlighters, notebooks and post-its, and headed back to campus.

At the risk of sounding geriatric, nothing indicates how the times have changed quite like returning to school amongst millennials. I quickly discovered that my school supplies had been replaced by laptops, and the pursuit of knowledge by arrogance and entitlement. Now perhaps that’s a little harsh, because, strictly speaking, I am a millennial myself. But going back to school at a later stage in life has given me a sense of appreciation I could never have had at 19.

I’m showing my kids that it’s never too late, that dreams are yours to make

I was determined to blend in, to not let my motherhood show through, or allow it be an excuse for achieving anything but the best. After all, I chose to return to school and it is up to me to carry the weight of my choices. I had the most incredible professor for my first lecture as a returning student. Afterward, I went to speak to him and mentioned that I was a returning student, but kept silent about my secret superpower – being a mom. He offered assistance with writing and tips for reading books effectively (reading a textbook requires a significantly different skill set than reading this month’s Oprah magazine).


The truth is that I just wanted to melt into the crowd, if only to appear the same as everyone else. But as the school year progressed, my identity as a mother started to leak through. It began with being the only one laughing at the professor’s jokes, continued with always being the one with snacks in class and finished with opening my knapsack to find a collection of my child’s Hot Wheels inside.

It’s taken me a couple of semesters, a few incredible teaching assistants and professors, and a few more Hot Wheels mishaps to realize the fault in my thinking. Eradicating my past doesn’t secure my future. Disavowing the journey that got me here doesn’t ensure success. The very traits I was trying to hide are the ones that make me a better student. My ability to delegate tasks and ensure their successful completion, things I learned from being a mom, makes me an excellent leader for group projects. My empathy in dealing with my children and their various needs enables me to see and respect other students’ points of view, even when I disagree with them. But mostly, the strength and work ethic I’ve utilized to get to this point propels me further as a student.

Above all, the greatest and most valuable aspect of returning to school is the message it sends my children. I’m showing them that it’s never too late, proving that dreams are yours to make true and modelling hard work and investing in myself. School is a microcosm for life: there are the times I feel invincible, like completing my course with an A, and there are the days I feel like a failure (getting a paper with “C+” written in red on the front will do that to you).

The important thing, I remind myself, is to get back up, throw my knapsack over my shoulders and try again. It’s my drive and inner gumption that propels me, but, in the end, it’s my children who are my fuel. Seeing their pride in me when I hang a “95%” on the fridge, showing them every day that trying never gets old – despite what my driver’s license says – that is my real reward.

Daniella English, author of The Not So Single Life, is a single mother of four and a communications student at York University.